My eldest grandson, Ben Mathews, just turned 4. According to the New York Times, that is a perilous age in that big city. Many 4-year- olds are toiling through exercises designed by their parents and tutoring companies to prepare for kindergarten gifted-program entrance tests.
It gets worse. Adults are fighting over the very nature of those exams. Should they, as they do now, measure how much academic preparation preschoolers have had? Or should they assess the magic essence of giftedness, something much talked about but poorly understood?
Ben can relax. The public schools where he lives in South Pasadena, Calif., like most schools in the Washington area, don’t have gifted programs for kindergartners. Fairfax and Montgomery counties have separate elementary and middle school classes for those designated as gifted students, but like many other districts here, they provide similarly imaginative teaching and opportunities for creative work to children who don’t score that high on IQ tests. High schools in the Washington area, as well as South Pasadena High School, offer the most challenging college-level courses to anyone, gifted or not, who wants to take them.
The national movement for gifted education has done much good. It has made it more likely that a sixth-grader ready for algebra will be accelerated. Its research has shown that children can be both gifted and learning disabled. Teaching methods designed for gifted children have helped many children without the designation.
But there is little proof that designated gifted children are getting much more than they would get in any well-taught classroom. On average, talented students do as well when they are adults even without gifted classes. Some say separate classes protect awkward and sensitive gifted children from bullying. But shouldn’t our schools do that for all children?
The truly gifted don’t appear to develop their innovative urges in school. Their passions need little more than friendly encouragement. Gifted education programs are not what set their thoughts free.
Creativity Research Journal just published a study of the early lives of people celebrated for their creativity. The findings were used to identify 485 Kansas children with the same traits. A third of those students had never been designated gifted. Many had average grades because they focused only on subjects that interested them.
Schools, even academies for the gifted, instinctively defend conventional values. They risk their funding if they don’t. They are likely to be at odds with many out-of-the-mainstream kids. Warren Buffett found it amusing to shoplift sports equipment when he was in junior high in the District. Former education secretary Bill Bennett recalls joining other student advisers at Harvard in trying to persuade an undergraduate named Bill Gates not to drop out for some weird software scheme.
I don’t want to abolish gifted programs. But more free time for such youngsters may be just as useful. They want to explore, experiment, follow their own logic. They are happy to discuss this with teachers, just so long as they get to do what they want, not stick to a program.
The best educators know how to adjust. I have no idea if my grandson Ben is gifted, but he is obsessed with the Los Angeles rail system. One of his preschool teachers, Robyn Hill, brought in a Gold Line map so they could ponder its intricacies. His latest school art project, hanging in our den, is an homage to the rail system and its lines of many colors.
I don’t know where this leads, but I don’t think Ben needs a gifted class to tell him. All aboard, kid. Have fun. Let us know sometime how it’s going.